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Uranium trioxide

Uranium trioxide
Other names Uranyl oxide
CAS number 1344-58-7
Molecular formula UO3
Molar mass 286.2873 g/mol
Commercial samples may
have undergone isotope
fractionation, and their
formula mass may
be significantly different
Density 5.5 – 8.7 g/cm3
Melting point

~ 200 – 650 °C decomp. (s)

Solubility in other solvents Partially soluble
Crystal structure Space group I41/amd (γ-UO3)
γ-UO3: [UO2]2+[UO4]2- 
Main hazards highly toxic: teratogen,
immunotoxin, neurotoxin,
genotoxin, nephrotoxin
Related Compounds
Other anions Uranyl nitrate
Uranyl hydroxide
Uranyl acetate
Uranium dioxide
Triuranium octaoxide
Related trioxides Tungsten trioxide
Molybdenum trioxide
Chromium trioxide
Except where noted otherwise, data are given for
materials in their standard state
(at 25 °C, 100 kPa)

Infobox disclaimer and references

Uranium trioxide (UO3), also called uranyl oxide, uranium(VI) oxide, and uranic oxide, is the hexavalent oxide of uranium. The solid may be obtained by heating uranyl nitrate to 400 °C. Its most commonly encountered polymorph, γ-UO3, is a yellow-orange powder.


Production and use

There are three methods to generate uranium trioxide. As noted below, two are used industrially in the reprocessing of nuclear fuel and uranium enrichment.

  1. U3O8 can be oxidized at 500°C with oxygen.[1] Note that above 750°C even in 5 atm O2 UO3 decomposes into U3O8.[2]
  2. Uranyl nitrate, (UO2(NO3)2·6H2O) can be heated to yield UO3. This occurs during the reprocessing of nuclear fuel. Fuel rods are dissolved in HNO3 to separate uranyl nitrate from plutonium and the fission products (the PUREX method). The pure uranyl nitrate is converted to solid UO3 by heating at 400 °C. After reduction with hydrogen (with other inert gas present) to uranium dioxide, the uranium can be used in new MOX fuel rods.
  3. Ammonium diuranate or sodium diuranate (Na2U2O7·6H2O) may be decomposed. Sodium diuranate, also known as yellowcake, is converted to uranium trioxide in the enrichment of uranium. Uranium dioxide and uranium tetrafluoride are intermediates in the process which ends in uranium hexafluoride.[3]

Uranium trioxide is shipped between processing facilities in the form of a gel.

Cameco Corporation, which operates at the world's largest uranium refinery at Blind River, Ontario, produces high-purity uranium trioxide.

It has been reported that the corrosion of uranium in a silica rich aqueous solution forms both uranium dioxide and uranium trioxide.[4] In pure water, schoepite {(UO2)8O2(OH)12.12(H2O)} is formed[5] in the first week and then after four months studtite {(UO2)O2·4(H2O)} was formed. Reports on the corrosion of uranium metal have been published by the Royal Society.[6][7]

Health and safety hazards

Like all hexavalent uranium compounds, UO3 is hazardous by inhalation, ingestion, and through skin contact. It is a poisonous, radioactive substance, which may cause shortness of breath, coughing, acute arterial lesions, and changes in the chromosomes of white blood cells and gonads leading to congenital malformations if inhaled.[8][9]


Solid state structure

The only well characterized binary trioxide of any actinide is UO3, of which several polymorphs are known. Solid UO3 loses O2 on heating to give green-colored U3O8: reports of the decomposition temperature in air vary from 200–650 °C. Heating at 700 °C under H2 gives dark brown uranium dioxide (UO2), which is used in MOX nuclear fuel rods.


The α (alpha) form: a layered solid where the 2D layers are linked by oxygen atoms (shown in red)

Hydrated uranyl peroxide formed by the addition of hydrogen peroxide to an aqueous solution of uranyl nitrate when heated to 200-225 °C forms an amorphous uranium trioxide which on heating to 400-450 °C will form alpha-uranium trioxide.[2] It has been stated that the presence of nitrate will lower the temperature at which the exothermic change from the amorphous form to the alpha form occurs.[10]


β (beta) UO3. This solid has a structure which defeats most attempts to describe it.

This form can be formed by heating ammonium diuranate, while P.C. Debets and B.O. Loopstra, found four solid phases in the UO3-H2O-NH3 system that they could all be considered as being UO2(OH)2.H2O where some of the water has been replaced with ammonia.[11][12] No matter what the exact stiochiometry or structure, it was found that calcination at 500°C in air forms the beta form of uranium trioxide.[2]


The γ (gamma) form, with the different uranium environments in green and yellow

The most frequently encountered polymorph is γ-UO3, whose x-ray structure has been solved from powder diffraction data. The compound crystallizes in the space group I41/amd with two uranium atoms in the asymmetric unit. Both are surrounded by somewhat distorted octahedra of oxygen atoms. One uranium atom has two closer and four more distant oxygen atoms whereas the other has four close and two more distant oxygen atoms as neighbors. Thus it is not incorrect to describe the structure as [UO2]2+[UO4]2- , that is uranyl uranate.[13]

The environment of the uranium atoms shown as yellow in the gamma form

The chains of U2O2 rings in the gamma form in layers, alternate layers running at 90 degrees to each other. These chains are shown as containing the yellow uranium atoms, in an octahedral environment which are distorted towards square planar by an elongation of the axial oxygen-uranium bonds.


The delta (δ) form is a cubic solid where the oxygen atoms are arranged between the uranium atoms.[14]

High pressure form

There is a high-pressure solid form with U2O2 and U3O3 rings in it.[15] [16]


Several hydrates of uranium trioxide are known, e.g., UO3•6H2O.[2]

Bond valence parameters

It is possible by bond valence calculations[17] to estimate how great a contribution a given oxygen atom is making to the assumed valence of uranium. Zachariasen, J. Less Common Met., 1978, 62, 1-7. Lists the parameters to allow such calculations to be done for many of the actinides. Bond valence calculations use parameters which are estimated after examining a large number of crystal structures of uranium oxides (and related uranium compounds), note that the oxidation states which this method provides are only a guide which assists in the understanding of a crystal structure.

The formula to use is

s = e^{-\frac{R-R_O}{B}}

The sum of the s values is equal to the oxidation state of the metal centre.

For uranium binding to oxygen the constants RO and B are tabulated in the table below. For each oxidation state use the parameters from the table shown below.

Oxidation stateROB

It is possible to do these calculations on paper or software. A program which does it can be obtained free of charge.[18][19]

Molecular forms

While uranium trioxide is encountered as a polymeric solid under ambient conditions, some work has been done on the molecular form in the gas phase, in matrix isolations studies, and computationally.

Gas phase

At elevated temperatures gaseous UO3 is in equilibrium with solid U3O8 and molecular oxygen.

1/3 U3O8(s) +1/6 O2(g)\overrightarrow{\gets} UO3(g)

With increasing temperature the equilibrium is shifted to the right. This system has been studied at temperatures between 900 °C and 2500 °C. The vapor pressure of monomeric UO3 in equilibrium with air and solid U3O8 at ambient pressure, about 10−5 mbar (1 mPa) at 980 °C, rising to 0.1 mbar (10 Pa) at 1400 °C, 0.34 mbar (34 Pa) at 2100 °C, 1.9 mbar (193 Pa) at 2300 °C, and 8.1 mbar (809 Pa) at 2500 °C.[20][21]

Matrix isolation

Infrared spectroscopy of molecular UO3 isolated in an argon matrix indicates a T-shaped structure (point group C2v) for the molecule. This is in contrast to the commonly encountered D3h molecular symmetry exhibited by most trioxides. From the force constants the authors deduct the U-O bond lengths to be between 1.76 and 1.79 Å (176 to 179 pm).[22]

Computational study

  Calculations predict that the point group of molecular UO3 is C2v, with an axial bond length of 1.75 Å, an equatorial bond length of 1.83 Å and an angle of 161 ° between the axial oxygens. The more symmetrical D3h species is a saddle point, 49 kJ/mol above the C2v minimum. The authors invoke a second-order Jahn-Teller effect as explanation.[23]


Uranium trioxide reacts at 400 °C with freon-12 to form chlorine, phosgene, carbon dioxide and uranium(IV) fluoride. The freon-12 can be replaced with freon-11 which forms carbon tetrachloride instead of carbon dioxide. This is a case of a hard perhalogenated freon which is normally considered to be inert being converted chemically at a moderate temperature.[24]

2 CF2Cl2 + UO3 → UF4 + CO2 + COCl2 + Cl2

4 CF2Cl2 + UO3 → UF4 + 3COCl2 + CCl4 + Cl2

Uranium trioxide can be dissolved in a mixture of tributyl phosphate and thenoyltrifluoroacetone in supercritical carbon dioxide, ultrasound was employed during the dissolution.[25]

Electrochemical modification

The reversible insertion of magnesium cations into the lattice of uranium trioxide by cyclic voltammetry using a graphite electrode modified with microscopic particles of the uranium oxide has been investigated. This experiment has also been done for U3O8. This is an example of electrochemistry of a solid modified electrode, the experiment which used for uranium trioxide is related to a carbon paste electrode experiment. It is also possible to reduce uranium trioxide with sodium metal to form sodium uranium oxides.[26]

It has been the case that it is possible to insert lithium[27][28][29] into the uranium trioxide lattice by electrochemical means, this is similar to the way that some rechargeable lithium ion batteries work. In these rechargeable cells one of the electrodes is a metal oxide which contains a metal such as cobalt which can be reduced, to maintain the electroneutrality for each electron which is added to the electrode material a lithium ion enters the lattice of this oxide electrode.

Amphoterism/Reactivity to form related uranium(VI) anions and cations

Uranium oxide is amphoteric and reacts as acid and as a base, depending on the conditions.

As an acid
UO3 + H2O → UO42− + H+

Dissolving uranium oxide in a strong base like sodium hydroxide forms the doubly negatively charged uranate anion (UO42−). Uranates tend to agglomerate, forming diuranate, U2O72−, or other poly-uranates. Important diuranates include ammonium diuranate ((NH4)2U2O7), sodium diuranate (Na2U2O7) and magnesium diuranate (MgU2O7), which forms part of some yellowcakes. It is worth noting that uranates of the form M2UO4 do not contain UO42− ions, but rather flattened UO6 octahedra, containing a uranyl group and bridging oxygens.[30]

As a base
UO3 + H2O → UO22+ + OH

Dissolving uranium oxide in a strong acid like sulfuric or nitric acid forms the double positive charged uranyl cation. The uranyl nitrate formed (UO2(NO3)2ˑ6H2O) is soluble in ethers, alcohols, ketones and esters; for example, tributylphosphate. This solubilty is used to separate uranium from other elements in nuclear reprocessing, which begins with the dissolution of nuclear fuel rods in nitric acid. The uranyl nitrate is then converted to uranium trioxide by heating.

From nitric acid one obtains uranyl nitrate, trans-UO2(NO3)2·2H2O, consisting of eight-coordinated uranium with two bidentate nitrato ligands and two water ligands as well as the familiar O=U=O core.

Uranium oxides in ceramics

UO3-based ceramics become green or black when fired in a reducing atmosphere and yellow to orange when fired with oxygen. Orange-coloured Fiestaware is a well-known example of a product with a uranium-based glaze. UO3-has also been used in formulations of enamel, uranium glass, and porcelain.

Prior to 1960, UO3 was used as an agent of crystallization in crystalline coloured glazes. It is possible to determine with a Geiger counter if a glaze or glass was made from UO3.


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  13. ^ Engmann R, de Wolff PM (1963). "The Crystal Structure of γ-UO3". Acta Crystallographica 16: 993. doi:10.1107/S0365110X63002656.
  14. ^ M. T. Weller, P. G. Dickens, D. J. Penny (1988). "The structure of δ-UO3>". Polyhedron 7: 243-244. doi:10.1016/S0277-5387(00)80559-8.
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This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Uranium_trioxide". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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